In my universe, humans nuked themselves in a war so thoroughly that the Earth has been rendered uninhabitable. As a result, they have to leave Earth and find a new home. They briefly tried to settle Mars, but were driven off by hostile native Martians they had neither the numbers nor the energy to fight. After this, they wandered the cosmos for another thousand years or so, inside a massive ship around the size of New York state. However, almost as soon as it arrived in this new galaxy, this ship was destroyed by a collision with a massive asteroid. As a result, almost half of the colonists went down with the ship, and those who survived were dispersed on a few dozen smaller ships that scattered themselves throughout this new galaxy, with each eventually finding and settling their own uninhabited new world.


-In this scenario, the humans have a technology level around the same as present-day, except with the spaceship capabilities mentioned above.

-The Martians were technologically inferior to the humans, only being able to beat them by way of sheer numbers.

Question: Once these humans all arrive at their new destinations, what would be a good reason for them to lose all their technology? For the purposes of the story, I need them to revert to Mesolithic levels relatively soon after they arrive.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ If a planet were settled by my high school class,new would lose metalworking tech just like that, because we ignant. But I have seen bows and arrows, and wheels and I could recreate that stuff. That stuff is important tech that chroma gonna did not have. Do you mean that they have lost even things like the wheel and bows $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Commented Oct 12, 2019 at 2:48
  • $\begingroup$ @Willk Thanks for your input. I changed it to say "Mesolithic" instead to solve this problem. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 12, 2019 at 3:16
  • $\begingroup$ You want all of these smaller ships to lose their technology? Or just one of them? $\endgroup$
    – Priska
    Commented Oct 12, 2019 at 3:22
  • $\begingroup$ @Priska all of them $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 12, 2019 at 3:27
  • $\begingroup$ How are they going to get up to Mesolithic? Do the survivors include anyone who has studied flint knapping? Knows how to butcher a large animal? Knows plants well enough for safe, effective gathering? Throws a spear accurately? $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 13, 2019 at 23:32

10 Answers 10


No tools to build tools.

The surviving ships had a limited supply of spare parts and no means to make more. Once the capacitor on the ciruit board of the 3D printer goes bad, that thing is completely useless.

Perhaps the engineers realized that, and tried to 3D-print old-fashioned turret lathes and printing presses with the starship workshops. But then they ran into the second problem, too few specialists to maintain a technological society. When nine out of ten people are needed in the fields because they don't have combine harvesters, nobody has time to study physics textbooks.

The immediate requirements of survival prevent scholarship.

  • $\begingroup$ Mesolithic is more hunter-gathering than agriculture with fields, but your point about most time and energy being needed for basic survival applies anyway. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 13, 2019 at 23:34
  • $\begingroup$ This is good enough to get you back very far technologically, but I don't think it's good enough to get all the way back to the Mesolithic. We have today records of how to build, essentially from nothing, things like forges and windmills. It will also be hard to explain the loss of certain ideas and basic knowledge, like the germ theory of disease, the printing press, writing, etc via this route. $\endgroup$
    – Ton Day
    Commented Oct 15, 2019 at 5:33

It would be unbelievable if they had kept their technology after several unplanned and under-equipped diasporas. Advanced technology is not just a bunch of technical lesson plans which can be casually carried along in every ship's computer. It is also the undocumented wisdom of experienced practitioners in hundreds of distinct disciplines. Beyond that, advanced technology requires massive infrastructure for mining and refining the necessary raw materials. That is hundreds more specialties which have to be learned, mastered and applied to their raw new home world.

Don't forget clean water and dependable electricity. Even more to learn and build.

The burdens which advanced technology lays upon young colonies is only slightly less than the advantages it provides to those colonies.

With all the other challenges facing your survivors, it would be pretty amazing if they somehow managed to keep their technology alive. ...and no surprise at all if they didn't.


Your premise already explains it.

and those who survived were dispersed on a few dozen smaller ships that scattered themselves throughout this new galaxy, with each eventually finding and settling their own uninhabited new world.

The large knowledge databanks, the educational material etc., would have been in the mothership alone, of course. The smaller pinnaces would only have had navigational information and logic. They wouldn't have been designed for anything but a quick escape in case of disaster.

And, on most of those pinnaces, there was simply not enough people to know and remember how all the technology can be put together starting from zero (smelting ores, refining metals, synthesizing chemicals...). Once (most of) the technology they brought with them broke down, they were not able to recreate it.

Actually, you would have to mention in passing that they at least managed to load on the lifeboats some genetic bank cryokits (unless the colonists had been genetically reengineered to survive inbreeding): otherwise, the ships would never have been able to repopulate a world due to the size of their gene pool. In the haphazard and panicked loading of the lifeboats, no one gave thought to the educational programs for the generations to come.


Only the kids survive.

The adults die within the year after arriving on the new planet. Just as adults who catch measles can become terribly ill but kids shake it off, the adults fall victim to disease organisms endemic to the new worlds while the kids roll with it and emerge from infection scarred but intact.

The little kids who are the main survivors could barely read. The sick, dying adults saw what was coming and tried to set things up to give the kids a fighting chance of not starving - setting up chicken coops, gardens, fish ponds. This is the culture that the survivors inherit.

  • $\begingroup$ On every single planet? I like this answer for one, but not all. Still upvoted it, because it would be more interesting if there were different causes for each to lose their tech level. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 17, 2019 at 1:43
  • The people who survived aren't useful to keeping tech running. In the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series, the people who crash landed on earth were not...exactly pioneer material. They were mainly middle management. If the majority of people who went down were ordinary citizens, most would not have any technical expertise, let alone be able to figure out how to process raw materials to repair what's broken. In fact, the average person, if you dropped them on a desert island with a bit of tech simply would not be able to maintain it--and over generations, forget about it.
  • "relatively soon" could mean within a few generations. Or one. Really depends on what you mean there. But, with survival being at the fore, keeping tech repaired would take a back seat to something like eating.
  • Power requirements/actual ship is needed. While in space your ships and tech were self-sustaining in some way. But once you got to the planet, as you spread away from the ship, the settlers could no longer make good use of the tech because they were too far from the power source.
  • ONE THING Like power requirements, the tech needs one thing to run. Some unobtanium that they can no longer make. The expectation would be that it could be replaced, and in a hi-tech society, with access to the main colony ship that would have been easy. But instead, they are stuck without, and so abandon the tech.

Normally, I would get specific, using atmospheric conditions, or lack of resources on the planet they drop to be the problem, but as you want ALL of them to fail in the same way, that points to an inherent fault that must be present in all of their tech, which is not consistent to their environment.


They choose not to use their technology

Given that your story starts with humanity's reckless use of technology destroying a planet, I could easily imagine a new colony making a deliberate decision to regress to pre-electric technology levels, or even further. Give it a generation or two for the old education levels to wane and you have your technological devolution.

Examples of this include:

  1. The end of the TV show

    BattleStar Galactica, where they fly their spaceships into the sun and live with cavemen

  2. The premise from the Safehold series, wherein humanity settles on a new world after a narrow miss with extinction at the hands of an alien race. Fearing that the aliens would find the new world, the leaders created a false religion forbidding the use of any advanced technology, and brainwiped the colonist to forget their technological past.


Geomagnetic Storm

If the planet where they settle down is in a similar solar system as our planet, then a geomagnetic storm is a way to make them lose all of their electronics in a short time.

If you check this article you can learn more about it, but according to it says:

A geomagnetic storm on the scale of the solar storm of 1859 today would cause billions or even trillions of dollars of damage to satellites, power grids and radio communications, and could cause electrical blackouts on a massive scale that might not be repaired for weeks, months, or even years. Such sudden electrical blackouts may threaten food production.

If you want to damage the electronics but no the people this could be a good option.

  • $\begingroup$ Whilst divesting the colonists of some fragile electronics, it would not explain their apparent regression to "Mesolithic" levels of tech as specified. That being said, I've up-voted your answer as it adds something that the other answers missed. Good first post. (From review). $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 13, 2019 at 18:19

I feel that the premises of your question are somewhat unrealistic.

  1. Firstly, radiation fades very quickly. https://emilms.fema.gov/IS3/FEMA_IS/is03/REM0504050.htm In that source, it says "for every 7-fold increase in time after detonation, there is a 10-fold decrease in the exposure rate." In a few weeks or months after the detonations, survivors will be able to leave their bunkers without too much danger. Cancer rates might be up for some years, but most people would be fine.

  2. In general, you do not go to space to flee Earth, especially due to radiation. No matter how devastated Earth got, space is probably more hostile. In space, there is lots of radiation, along with no air, few resources in interstellar space, etc. If you have the technology to build a ship the size of New York state that can sail the void for thousands of years, you could also build underground, self-sufficient arcologies on Earth that could save a much larger portion of the population.

  3. There is no way a spacefaring civilization can lose to a non-spacefaring one. Numbers just do not matter. Any spacecraft capable of travelling between stars will carry incredible amounts of power (Don't have exact numbers, but even a modestly sized ship the size of an aircraft carrier would need energy equal to over ten times the entire modern world annual's energy budget to go up to 10% of light speed). A ship the size of New York could melt the surface off Mars with its engines alone, or just fling a couple of asteroids at it fast enough to smash the crust to pieces, even if it had no weapons, and it would probably have at the very least some lasers to shoot debris with to prevent hypervelocity collisions from destroying it.

  4. Even if you are fleeing earth, there is no reason to immediately head to another galaxy. If you can build or somehow found and can maintain a ship that lasts millennia, then you have no more need for planets. Even if a hypervelocity black hole flies through the solar system and eats the Earth or drags it into the void, you could just relocate to the asteroid belt or the moons of Jupiter or something. There are tons of resources there, and you could just build habitats such as O'Neill cylinders and mine the asteroids for materials to repair and expand with. You might eventually want to move out to colonize the stars, but you would only do that after you had established an industrial base and constructed a partial Dyson swarm or something like that. You gain nothing by wandering the stars immediately, as the void between them is hostile and largely bereft of resources.

  5. Even if you left the solar system, you would not immediately go to another galaxy. There are many stars reasonably close to earth (according to wikipedia, 52 within 16.3 light years), while the closest galaxy is 25,000 light years away. To reach any galaxy, you would have to fly for hundreds of thousands or millions of years through empty intergalactic space, where there are almost no resources for resupplying and repairing, while to go from one star to another, you can just hop from one star system to another, resupplying as you go, with each trip taking just a few decades or a few centuries at the most. Also, there are many chunks of ice and rock, as well as rogue planets within the galaxy to resupply from, though slowing down to grab one and speeding up again might not be worth it. FTL would not change much about this. If it just speeds up travel, letting you travel at 10 or 100 times the speed of light, it would still take orders of magnitude more time to leave the galaxy than to reach a nearby star for no benefit, while if you had some sort of teleportation style FTL, you might as well just teleport to some perfect location, and you wouldn't need to spend millennia in the void.

  6. Humans would find it almost impossible to survive on alien worlds with mesolithic technology. Even if they have life of their own, the conditions would probably be totally wrong. The life there will almost certainly have radically different biochemistry, and will be either indigestible or poisonous. We will not be able to grow our own crops in the soil, which will probably be incompatible to their biology. The local viruses will probably not be able to infect us, as viruses are highly specific in their hosts and can only enter the cells of specific organisms, but their bacteria and eukaryotic pathogens may be able to grow in us, and we will have no defense against them. The atmospheric composition will probably be different, making it hard or impossible for us to breathe. Life bearing worlds will probably be almost as hard or even harder than barren rocks to colonize, so their is little point in searching them out.

  7. No interstellar ship is going to be hit by an asteroid. Even today, most asteroids are tracked closely, and with the sensors on any ship capable of navigating the stars, you will be able to see them and respond easily. Remember, current Earth based sensors can still spot the Voyager probes, which are over 100 AU away, and those are the size of a car and weigh under a ton. Once spotted, the asteroid can be shot with a giant laser (any ship the size of New York that can fly at a few percent of light speed will have the energy to power huge lasers), hit with hypervelocity projectiles, or simply dodged.

In conclusion, your premises are a bit flawed. Instead, maybe you could say that an asteroid was about to hit Earth, and some wormhole devices were discovered leading to worlds that were unexpectedly habitable, and they were only able to open them at the last minute so few got through, and they then had wars at the new places, causing them to lose the technology they brought with them.

  • $\begingroup$ Most of these points have slightly flawed premises. $\endgroup$
    – toolforger
    Commented Oct 20, 2019 at 10:30
  • $\begingroup$ On #1, #2: A nuclear winter will still stop any reasonable way to produce energy. --- A 10-fold radiation decrease won't help you if if's one million above the "you can survive this" threshold, or if you cannot survive until the radiation is back down. --- Radiation that is already in your environment is far more difficult to control than radiation from the outside. (Of course stellar radiation is still nasty. Intermediate on Earth are still preferrable to interplanetary radiation.) $\endgroup$
    – toolforger
    Commented Oct 20, 2019 at 10:42
  • $\begingroup$ On #3: While you have plenty of energy if you can navigate space, there might be other restrictions. You might not have the technology to accelerate asteroids, or under time pressure (need to get out of space before the pursuing Vogons detect you, or before the last supplies run out). So while you're right in general, the story situation might be different, particularly if it is a really small spacefaring fleet that lives off supplies (something you allude to yourself in other points). $\endgroup$
    – toolforger
    Commented Oct 20, 2019 at 10:44
  • $\begingroup$ On #4 and #5: I completely agree on this one, unless the escape fleet has some handwavium - a teleporter built by precursor civilisations, for example. Going to another galaxy doesn't give you anything that you don't have in the current one though. Even a different star cluster might be hard to justify. $\endgroup$
    – toolforger
    Commented Oct 20, 2019 at 10:46
  • $\begingroup$ On #6: That's actually less of an issue. Distribute a few handfulls of organic dirt in various places, and exponential growth and evolution will make it occupy all the ecological niches that the native flora/fauna cannot use as efficiently. $\endgroup$
    – toolforger
    Commented Oct 20, 2019 at 10:55

The problem is going to be to make them lose some technology, but not so much as to prevent them from surviving.

Mesolithic people had their own technology that was very effective for small hunter-gatherer populations. They knew how to make tools and hunting weapons using local resources. They knew which parts of which plants were edible, and which could be used for purposes such a making cords and basket weaving. They knew how to butcher large animals, and dry and/or smoke the meat to preserve it even if they did not have large quantities of salt. They knew how to prepare hides to make clothing etc.

One key decision is how long do they keep access to copies of Wikipedia and Youtube. No access would prevent them from viewing videos on important topics such as "flint knapping for beginners" and how to make a watertight container from bark.

If they have a limited window they would have to prioritize learning survival skills. The generation born after they lose access would learn that there had been a golden age with all sorts of marvels, but their parents would only be able to teach the survival skills and knowledge, and a few bits and pieces of what individuals remembered but not all the intermediate steps to get from here to there.

I suggest allowing them a couple of years of access to Wikipedia and Youtube. If they have not learned enough survival skills in that time they are dead anyway.


The Aphasia Plague

Some ideas were extremely difficult to discover, but are so simple to explain that they are very unlikely to be lost. The ideas behind the germ theory of disease, for example. Or the knowledge that metal exists, and can be made by heating the right kind of rock to a very high temperature. Or that food can be preserved by adding lots of salt or sugar to it.

You need something to wipe out all knowledge, or close enough. The ships will have in their databanks, for example, an entire copy of wikipedia, and archives of Youtube. This will include shows like Crash Course Chemistry and Crash Course Statistics and the results of searching for how to forge iron.

Many of these ideas are not that hard to teach people. The contents of a grade school science textbook will be enough to keep people out of the Mesolithic.

So to make what you want happen, you have to get rid of all of it. The only way I can see is to temporarily destroy people's ability to transmit information.

A plague strikes the survivors. It inflicts brain damage, causing aphasia to strike 99.984 percent of the population. Over the course of (let's say) a few centuries, humanity develops a resistance to this plague.

Afterward, basically everything is gone. Computers in the ships, printouts of Wikipedia, etc. may all still exist, but nobody can understand what any of it says anymore. All the old languages are dead. New ones get created. All the ideas behind things like 'iron smelting' are lost, because nobody had the words to teach subsequent generations anything that can't be explained with simple sign language.


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